Plane Insanity: A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage, and Queasiness at 30,000 Feet
by Elliott Hester
St. Martin's Press
Man, I hate to fly. Ever since I got to ride a puddle jumper from Boston to New York on the front end of a Noreaster, I never have quite recovered. Like a Coast Guard cutter in high seas, that little single-engine plane thumped up and down, tossing drinks and peanuts into the air with the force of a major league pitcher. I don't think I would have ever recovered if it weren't for two gin & tonics on the ground and the patient calm of the flight attendant who strapped himself in beside me and talked me through the storm.
Fortunately, on my last flight out to San Francisco, a friend gave me a copy of "Plane Insanity," and I was laughing so hard from cover to cover that I barely noticed when we hit the ground. Author Elliot Nester has assembled years of observation, adventure, and stark insanity into a slim volume that should be required reading for anyone who flies a major carrier. His sharp wit, told in first person through chapters like "The Ferret In First Class," and "Adios Hydraulics," is honed to a razor's edge.
The funny thing is that Hester never wanted to be a flight attendant, as he remarks in his introduction. In 1985, he was working as a "thrower," tossing baggage on the graveyard shift at Chicago's O'Hare Airport in the middle of one of the city's deathly cold nights. The windchill was 64 below zero, Hester was feeling his mouth freeze and melt as he breathed, and looked up to see a flight attendant waving down at him from her warm perch on the aircraft.
"It was a short, sad wave," writes Hester. "The kind of wave offered by an inmate's wife, when visiting hours have ended at Riker's Island." So began Elliot Hester's 16-year career as a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.
It's easy to imagine his unique place in the absurd world of flight attendants. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Hester is self-described as, "Tall, black and bald. A little rough around the edges." Although his ferocious appearance belies a gentle temper and the aforementioned quick wit, it is easy to see how the man got himself into so many scrapes over the years.
Though 250 pages, Hester describes the shocking and bizarre events that have taken place on his aircraft. There are fistfights, drunken escapades, bizarrely rambunctious children, and heart attacks. Here, too, is the stressed out passenger who tried to open the emergency exit six miles above the Atlantic Ocean as well as a robbery of over half a million dollars from a 727.
It's not always passengers who enliven the tales, either. The flyboys and girls who serve up soda and peanuts have their own unique aspects. Hester eloquently describes the latent gap between attendants and pilots, the random drug tests, and the misadventures of jetlagged, overindulgent crew on the ground. He also intersperses his own stories with well-researched stories reprinted directly from the newspapers. It's hard to pass up headlines like "Pig Flies First Class Across U.S.," "Air Hostess Stages Own Take-Off After Losing Bet" (a stew who paraded half-naked at an Italian airport after losing a bet with a passenger), and "British Airways Sacks Airgirls in 2 For 1 Sex Romp."
Aye, there's the rub. The last section is dedicated to the intriguing and absurd world of the Mile High Club. According to Hester, who denies being a card-carrying member, it does exist. Like many of his colleagues, he has turned a blind eye over the past 16 years to liaisons that would embarrass even the most brazen of passengers. However, it seems that late flights, low lights and complimentary cocktails make for a decidedly welcome environment for in-flight trysts. Hester describes his brushes with lavatory lovers with the eye of a journalist and the cynical charm of a storyteller.
Elliot is halfway across the world today, passing through Indonesia during a year-long round-the-globe trip for his next book. Let's hope he's having as much fun on his trip as I did on my short leg to San Francisco.